The Secret Sauces of Life and Photos

When you walk into the sun, your shadow follows you from behind, it never leaves you alone. If you stop and turn your head, your shadow is still there, and if you move forward, it moves with you — it’s your best friend and only abandons you when light does too. A shadow needs light to survive.

A Shadow Needs Light to Survive

A shadow needs light to survive, and with out light, there would be no shadows in this photo.

As a photographer we must fully understand shadows and light in order to appreciate what they bring to our art besides chiaroscuro. We’ll start first with shadows, which not just people, but all living and man-made things always cast in their lifetime.


Shadows don’t last forever, but they do return. They come in various shades of gray, often well beyond 50, and most shadows change their size throughout the day, especially outdoors when the sun rises and then when it sets. With a flick of the switch, shadows instantly appear or disappear. In the arts of painting, photography, videography, and cinematography, shadows create illusions of depth and bring a feeling of perceived dimensions.

A Shadow Needs Light to Survive

In photography, the intermixing of shadows and light is known as chiaroscuro.

Shadows come to life in our bodies thanks to x-rays and digital imaging. Some of us will walk in shadows cast by others while some of us will create shadows for others to follow. One thing for certain, if we nod our heads in affirmation, our shadows will agree, if we turn our heads to the left and right in disagreement, our shadows will support our decision. Shadows will lay but not lie.

In high contrast light, shadows are hard while in low contrast light they are soft. Shadows are a reaction to the action of light and are either created or eliminated. Some shadows can provide mystery and mood, while others can create a place for evil to exist or provide a vantage point for future success. Shadows weigh nothing, but their mere existence can provide heavy weight in the outcome. You can find shadows in in the reflection of a mirror, but shadows can disappear through glass. A shadow-less world exists on the dark side of the moon or in inactive lava tubes on earth, but a world of shadows exists somewhere in the universe.


Normally we’ll move from a shadowed area into light and whether it’s hot or cold, light is either continuous or intermittent. While shadows can provide a coolness, light can provide warmth, though some light is cool to the touch. Camera flash is normally colorless to the human eye though we can create color with gelled flash or white-balance techniques. Light is a source of energy, but light can deplete energy too. For some, light is a luxury even in poorly lit areas. There is strength and weakness in light, and though it provides life for the most part, light can destroy life too.

Without light, we have a darkness without shadows and with light, we can create dark shadows. Light is the lifeblood to a photo like blood is to our bodies. Illusions sometimes are created by light, but light itself is rarely an illusion. We can direct light, though it can work indirectly too. When we create form in art we use light alongside the shadows it creates. Light travels and fades, and when it’s red, it can stop cars, but like shadows, light doesn’t discriminate.

We see with light, and without it, we normally see nothing. Light is easily reflected, deflected, and diffused, and this action causes instant reactions. Light comes in various sizes, shapes, and forms, but like shadows, it’s weightless. Some people can go crazy with too much light or no light at all. It’s possible to direct or redirect light as needed, though in its purest form, light comes naturally. The light around us is either natural, ambient, or it exists in some form. Sound and light are made up of waves that travel, but light is faster plus it can travel in a vacuum, sound cannot.

On the lighter side of things, light can add mood or an ambience to our environment making things feel romantic, though on a stormy day, intermittent light has the possibility to electrify life with powerful energy that can create fear or even death. Flashing light can cause us to pull over or help us in a life-threatening emergency. A straw will bend in water through light refraction, while light will emit a form of energy from fire or flame.

Light can illuminate a photographer’s subject, and photographers can paint with light too. This is part of understanding light while not forgetting about the shadows — and I bet, if you look, especially if you’re facing light or sunlight, you’ll see your shadow is still behind you! Shadows and light are the secret sauces of life and your photos.

Rolando Gomez is a professional photographer and author of five photography books that has traveled to 45 countries for assignments. The former soldier and U.S. Army combat photographer has taught hundreds of photography workshops for almost two decades. A 2016, 2017 and 2018 Top Writer for Quora, his partial credits include Newsweek, Parade, Playboy, Rangefinder, Maxim, Rangefinder, New York Times, Stars & Stripes, and various other publications.
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